“And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me…the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea”.
The above quote is the final line from the Overture to Swann’s Way and is, of course, the end of the madeleine episode. But in another way it is the beginning (hence “Overture”) because it is the doorway through which we and the Narrator pass on the journey to recovering lost time- the doorway to the past. In Marcel’s case the doorway leads to the town of Combray, where he, as a child, and his family spent their Easter vacations and is based on a real town in France where Proust’s family spent their Easter vacations. This real town, Illiers, changed its name to Illiers-Combray in recognition of this, and to give Proust-o-philes a place to pilgrimage to in their search for the lost Proust. You can read about one person’s pilgrimage (not mine, unfortunately) here.
Here’s Proust, in a photo taken by Paul Nadar, at the age of sixteen. I placed this picture here so that we could have some image in our minds of our Narrator as he walks the streets of Combray, but immediately two problems present themselves. One is the problem of whether or not the “Narrator”, as scholars call him, of In Search of Lost Time- is he really Marcel Proust or one of his literary creations? Here’s what I think about that question, but much later in the novel, as the Narrator’s love interest is speaking to him, she refers to him as Marcel. This doesn’t settle the problem, but it does give us something more intimate to call the Narrator.
The second problem is Marcel’s age at this time- we aren’t told and as my sister said as she’s reading this now, it’s a lot easier to understand his angst over getting his mother’s goodnight kiss if he’s five years old, but if he is sixteen? Not so much. We’ll look for clues as we go along, but my impression is that he is about sixteen. But these are compressed memories of what is probably years of time, vaguely remembered and blurred like an Impressionist’s painting of the place, the streets and houses and church of Combray. As Marcel himself will tell us, “…more insubstantial than the projections of my magic-lantern…” What follows are Marcel’s memories, thoughts and feelings over these early years, in such detail and sharp remembrance as to give lie to the insubstantiality of Marcel’s “impressions”.
Back in Combray, we are introduced (formally) to Marcel’s Aunt Leonie, she of the lime-blossom decoction and madeleines. We also learn that she, since her husband’s death, “…had gradually declined to leave, first Combray, then her house in Combray, then her bedroom, and finally her bed…” Now, who does that remind us of? Hmmm…oh yes, Marcel Proust! Here is the pattern for how Proust will live out his adult life, and where our lines between imaginary literary character and autobiography again blur. Much ink has been spilt over this question, beginning when Swann’s Way was first published and Proust vehemently denied that it was in any way auto-biographical. D’accord, Marcel, and we’ll just pretend that we don’t see ourselves portrayed here as well. Mais non.